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opinion | John Shattuck

Containing Putin

Protesters, mostly of Russian or Ukrainian origin, held signs to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration near the Russian permanent mission to the UN in New York after the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow. REUTERS


The assassination of Russian democracy activist Boris Nemtsov has sent a shocking chill through what remains of Russia’s battered civil society. The chill is also sweeping across the ranks of democracy advocates in Eastern Europe and Central Asia opposed to Putin-style authoritarianism.


Nemtsov was gunned down 200 yards from the Kremlin in an area under constant government surveillance, in an atmosphere of hatred and violence stirred up by the government against those who dare to criticize it.

For more than a year the Russian president has made clear that he intends to reestablish Russia’s sphere of influence over the countries that once made up the Soviet Union. His pretext is that NATO has pushed eastward and he is seeking to protect ethnic Russians left behind in the Soviet empire’s collapse. Putin’s larger purpose is to extend Russia’s political and economic dominion beyond its borders. The annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine are part of that plan.

The stakes for Europe are high. Democratic governance is at the heart of the European Union, and Putin is its enemy. Putin is attempting to buy influence in Europe in order to undermine the EU’s resolve to resist his aggression, supporting political parties of both left and right in Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and France. At the same time, Russia is using its energy supplies to try to establish leverage over European economies.


Putin is determined to silence internal opponents and intimidate neighboring countries with democratic aspirations. Attracted by democracy, Ukrainians and other Russian neighbors are seeking to control their own destiny and resist Russia’s sway. The focal point is Ukraine, but a wider lens shows Putin’s aggressive strategy at work throughout the region. Stability and democracy in the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe are threatened by an irredentist Russia. The Putin model will be an even greater challenge to the EU if the model succeeds in attracting European nationalists in Greece, Hungary, and elsewhere. The insecurity of Russia’s nuclear weapons add to the urgency of containing the crisis.

What kind of containment? A combination of big sticks and carrots is essential.

The sanctions should be increased and broadened to include all Russian officials and companies engaged in implementing Putin’s internal and external security policies. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia does not have a self-sufficient economic system and its economy is intertwined with global financial and capital markets. This dependence has created conditions in which the economic sanctions imposed by the US and the EU are having an impact on Putin’s regime and the Russian economy.

NATO should increase its deployment of rapid reaction forces to the Baltics and other front-line countries to forestall any westward moves by the Russian military. The US should drop its proposal to supply arms to Ukraine. Putin is more likely to be deterred by economic measures than by military escalation. Arming Ukraine will only reinforce Russia’s narrative that the war is a Western provocation.


Since Putin has a history of making bad promises, the new sanctions and NATO deployments should be calibrated to increase automatically if Russian aggression continues. The goal is to create an incentive for Putin to negotiate a permanent end to the war in Ukraine. Ukraine’s sovereignty and international border with Russia should be guaranteed in exchange for more local autonomy in eastern Ukraine and the protection of Russian minorities.

The carrots are the prospect of a gradual scaling back and ultimate elimination of sanctions, the restoration of access to international capital markets, and the opportunity for a free trade agreement between the European Union and Putin’s fledgling Eurasian Union.

Steadiness in the West is the key to containing Putin. The United States and the EU should unite behind a strategy of pressing Russia economically and militarily. At the same time they should hold out the possibility of a long-term economic and political relationship that would bring Russia out of its isolation and provide it with respect as an emerging world power.

John Shattuck is president of Central European University in Budapest. He is a former US ambassador to the Czech Republic and US assistant secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor.



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H.D.S. Greenway: Obama has set a long game with Russia

Ideas: Putin’s long game? Meet the Eurasian Union